Climate Change Is Killing People Around the World and It's Only Going to Get Worse

In February, President Obama said that the media "absolutely" overstates the risk of terrorism, while many more lives are claimed by climate change and epidemics. Mike Huckabee shot back, telling Fox News, "I assure you that a beheading is much worse than a sunburn."


Perhaps the GOP climate denier and presidential contender should take a trip to India, where a heat wave has claimed the lives of more than 1,800 people, making it the deadliest in over three decades.

While climate deniers may disagree, the increase in extreme weather events around the world — and the deaths they cause — is linked to climate change. The India Meteorological Department (IMD), the nation's weather agency, analyzed long-term data from over 100 weather stations and confirmed that as global warming has taken effect, heat waves have become more frequent and more intense, increasing by a third over the past 50 years.

The IMD researchers assert that "the huge increase in the heat wave days during the last decade is mainly caused by the increase in the events associated with three El Niño years (2002, 2004 and 2009)." They say that the deaths in the country following El Niño years in 2003, 2005 and 2010 corroborate this trend.

A 2014 study led by Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation found that climate change could double the frequency of super El Niño events. “Under greenhouse warming the eastern equatorial Pacific warms faster than the surrounding regions ... making it easier to have maximum SST (sea surface temperatures) in the eastern equatorial Pacific, and hence more occurrences of extreme El Nino events,” said the study's lead researcher Wenjun Cai.

In a paper written with scientists at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune, Raghu Murtugudde of the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center at the University of Maryland asserts that global warming may account for bigger heat events around the world than El Niños. "An important factor about heat waves is that as you warm the temperatures, say due to global warming, the extremes tend to increase more in percentage," he said.

"On account of 0.8 degree warming during the past hundred years, one must expect more heat waves even without an El Niño. El Niño will increase the atmospheric temperature and hence add to the problems created by global warming," said J. Srinivasan, chairman of the Divecha Centre for Climate Change at the Indian Institute of Science.

Deadly tornadoes, floods

As India tries to cope with killer heat, tornadoes and flooding from epic downpours have killed 17 in Texas, 14 in northern Mexico and six in Oklahoma, with nine people missing. And while weather forecasters have been reluctant to connect these extreme weather events to climate change, scientific studies have made the link. A 2014 study by researchers at Florida State University found that changes in atmospheric heat and moisture brought on by global warming may be causing an increase in the frequency and severity of tornadoes in the U.S., while a recent Climate Central report found that the unprecedented amount of rainfall in Texas and Oklahoma "suggest[s] a possible climate change signal, where a warming atmosphere becomes more saturated with water vapor and capable of previously unimagined downpours."

RELATED: As Carbon Emissions Continue to Increase, So Will Extreme Downpours

With the drought broken by going to the other extreme, Texas has undergone what has been called "weather whiplash," with more than 90 percent of the state declared at risk for flash flooding. On Monday, Texas governor Greg Abbott declared a state of disaster in 24 counties.

Indeed, Texans are familiar with killer climate: With 883 fatalities reported between 1959 and 2014, the state leads the nation in the number of fatalities due to flash and river floods. Pennsylvania comes in second, with 254 flood-related fatalities.

Killer climate

Extreme weather events aren't the only way that climate change is taking lives. According to a 2014 World Health Organization (WHO) report, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050 — not just from heat stress (38,000), but also from malnutrition (95,000), malaria (60,000) and diarrhea (48,000). This is all due to the fact that climate change "affects the social and environmental determinants of health — clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food and secure shelter," say the report's authors.

The agency points out that each of the last three decades has been successively warmer than any preceding decade since 1850, with extreme high temperatures contributing directly to deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory disease. They give as an example the European heat wave during the summer of 2003 that claimed more than 70,000 excess deaths.

RELATED: Conservatives Go Berserk After Bill Nye Links Texas Floods to Climate Change

Jeremy Hess, an Emory University physician and epidemiologist who has studied the relationship between climate change and health, said that the WHO findings are "a significant step forward in the global estimation of projected disease burden associated with climate change." But was careful to note that the morbidity estimates "are almost certainly an underestimate," as a lack of data prevents getting a full picture of the relationship between climate and health.

A 2012 report by DARA International commissioned by 20 governments to study the human and economic costs of climate change arrived at higher estimates than WHO, linking 400,000 annual deaths worldwide to climate change, and projecting deaths to increase to over 600,000 per year by 2030. The number goes up when they considered the health effects of burning fossil fuels, separate from climate change-related effects.

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image: DARA

Unless the global community can figure out a way to reduce the effects of climate change, many places around the world will be dealing with more killer climate. For Indians, relief from the monsoon rains cannot come soon enough. An no matter what Mike Huckabee thinks, sunburn is the least of their concerns.

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